Practicing empathy among role shifting | Interview with Yasmeen Godder

Lara Crippa

Practicing empathy among role shifting | Interview with Yasmeen Godder

Waiting for the new work, Practicing Empathy 2by2, a generous talk with Yasmeen Godder switching from dependency to interconnection, posing new questions and attempting some answers for the future of dance.

There is a pre and post Covid-19 marked by an overbearing entry of a digital space. How have you dealt with it and how has it changed your practice?
It’s been a process, shifting and changing, and I’m still trying to understand how this digital space is impacting me. For example last week we led a workshop in Berlin and we also did a live stream performance. We directly experienced what we usually do but not in the usual way: we were performing here and they were there. On the other hand, throughout the workshop, there was a cameraman over there who was mediating, giving me his way to look at what was happening in the room. There was someone I had never met who was my eyes. And I asked for a person I had worked with in the past to be there to translate my processes. So there is this media, this digital space, which is becoming the protagonist of these experiences, that is defining the way we are communicating. What is interesting for me is how we are suddenly becoming dependant on all the people that are in that same room.

The same happened in Italy with the transmission of Practicing Empathy. It opened the possibility to work intimately with people you wouldn’t have collaborated so deep with, like with Giovanna Garzotto, the rehearsal director in Bassano. But it’s the need of the time, the necessity to have someone there who could be the contact person to have a closer dialogue with. Even my company had a new role in this process, as the dancers were transmitting their material to Bassano’s dancers. The company becomes a community that transfers via media its way of working, of thinking, of understanding certain practices.

Our roles are shifting and I find this to be very helpful. When I sit in front of this media I need a team because I feel very lonely, and I don’t want to be in this experience like that. I was used to walk around, exchange some words, feel the energy of the room. Suddenly I have to create almost instinctively. There is a lot going on but I’m trying to figure out how could it be inspiring or influencing and opening up our relationship creating other kinds of intimacy.

Speaking about roles, in this new Practicing empathy there will be three audiences: two people involved on stage, a live audience, and a zoom audience.
This is something new. The basis of this choreography, which is called Practicing Empathy 2by2, is two dancers with two spectators at two meter distance. There is the acknowledgement of this limitation but using it as a kind of tool to connect and relate to each other. Not something that creates a voidance but rather something that allows for intimacy. If you think about social distancing, to be at two meter distance with a stranger, to look into his eyes, is quite intimate, and to be so close to a performer is a boundary breaking experience. Then, dialoguing with Roberto Casarotto, we thought that it might have been interesting to allow people to witness this process. And then there will be people in the Zoom as well!

Even before this Coronavirus experience, I was in a zone of my work testing to lose a little bit of my control as a choreographer. A lot about choreography regards control: defining the space, defining how you are asking people to look, defining what you want to say… There is something about performance that has always to do with the danger of things going wrong. I’m going to learn something from this experience in Bassano, from these layers of witnessing processes. The two people from the audience who are with the performers are experiencing in their body the intimacy they are creating there, while the rest of the audience is witnessing. There is something there that has to do with empathy, as you are watching someone else going through something while you are in a process of questioning yourself how are they feeling, you see the nuances of their response, you see also how the performers are dealing with all this. The audience reaction is always true but in this case I’ve made it more pronounced, there is an equal role on both side, and the witness can contemplate this relationship of interdependency.

How has the word empathy entered into you research project?
Acknowledging that there are other bodies in the room who are having their own experiences. I was in Bassano with Stabat Mater [→review] and I felt how much empathy was needed. It is a complex word and a complex theme to try to capture, but I wanted to research on that. How can we make the art-making-time a time of researching on this idea of empathy, taking into consideration each other needs and emotions? Dance, as an art form, has that possibility at a very basic level: when you watch a body your brain is synchronizing with the process of the body in front of you.
I wanted to make that question more visible, so in 2019 I started researching and many different practices came out. In Practicing Empathy #1 dancers were researching empathy together and to each other, but the audience was just witnessing. Practicing Empathy #2 – which I never got to premier because Coronavirus came – it’s all about what you are not allowed to do: hold people hands, look closely into their eyes, and different things very interactive. As an audience member you would have been taken a hundred per cent into the choreography and from the beginning to the end. Practicing Empathy 2by2 is the rule of the time and has the same idea of #2 – interactivity and interconnectivity – a practice of transferring the possibility of having a connection with a stranger, but without touch and without words.

Dance is often considered the daughter of a lesser God. What is dance for you?
I do think that the tool of dance, its basis, is trusting the body, the history that each body has, which is at the same time a place of connecting via a less verbal way. I think a lot about the things we do every day as performers and dancers: we try to connect to our body, to listen inwardly, to find our ground. These basic practices, and the way of thinking in the dance field, are precious and need to be shared. Dancers have other amazing skills than dance beautifully and in control of their bodies. There are other special skills that have been developed and could be shared, like listening, a special awareness, empathy…

I’m thinking at how could the dance field work with institutions. What is a dance company? Is it a small community that potentially could impact other communities? What I’m doing in the studio does it have an impact on the society level or at a social level? These are the things that interest me, not from an idealistic point of view but concretely: there is a studio, an office, there is a way to communicate with the world, so how can we use that to do things that fill and fulfill a bigger picture?

In my studio I also have the project with people with Parkinson disease, Moving Communities. It started from Parkinson but it has become a multiage, generational, and different physical state place where people come together to dance. It’s a breath of air, an important moment in the week that gives hope. When the lockdown came, this project became the most urgent: how could these classes be continued? There was a Facebook group that wasn’t active and we started to give free live classes there; it suddenly became the center of our meeting! I’m not saying that we should stay in a Facebook group, I think we need to find more ways of meeting and connecting not in reality, but I’ve appreciated learning how things we take for granted became places for sustaining our community.

How do you see the future of dance in this moment?
I can just talk from what is happening here in Israel. Right now, in Jerusalem, there are many protests against the government almost every day. You are allowed to protest but there is no performance allowed… So many performances are happening within the protests itself. Do I think that the future of dance is to be in a protest? I don’t think so, I don’t know, I don’t have a view yet of what is going to happen.

Maybe now more than ever it’s time to work just for one moment to the next one. Having a stable company where you try to work long term, also for the relation you have with the performers. But everything we have planned is in a big question mark. In Israel not to travel is very limiting for the art field, and especially for the dance world, as we are a small country and we are not really touring. Maybe it’s time to think on why to meet, to dance, to continue something. I don’t have a solution. But if I have to speak intuitively I do think it will all continue. This all thing of working locally is very strong and it’s our only choice. Perhaps now you have to figure out how you are going to do it, how it’s going to be solved. Finding solutions, rethinking institutions and how to sustain companies and our work: these are things very interesting to me that relate with extending ourselves a little bit beyond our field, to different communities, to institutions that were not traditionally dealing with performance or dance.

In attesa del nuovo lavoro Practicing Empathy 2by2, Yasmeen Godder ci racconta come l’utilizzo dello spazio digitale abbia creato nuovi ruoli nella trasmissione di un lavoro, togliendo una parte di controllo al coreografo che si deve ora affidare alla telecamera di un tecnico remoto e alla presenza fisica di un referente che traduca i processi creativi. Il nuovo lavoro prevede due persone del pubblico che interagiscono con due performer a due metri di distanza, mentre il resto del pubblico osserva. Si creano così più livelli di osservazione: che sensazioni accadono sulla scena, sia del performer che dello spettatore, come rispondono uno all’altro, come si crea una interdipendenza. La danza si presta a questa ricerca sull’empatia, sul tenere in considerazione le emozioni altrui. La danza ripensata non solo a livello tecnico ma anche nella sua pratica più semplice di ascolto e connessione a sé, allo spazio, all’altro. Cosa può diventare allora una compagnia di danza? Può essere una comunità che si inserisce in uno schema più ampio? In un futuro incerto, dove è saltata qualunque programmazione, si riscoprono vecchi mezzi e vecchi canali, dalle lezioni online per non lasciare soli i parkinsoniani di Moving Communities, al ripensare a come si possa lavorare con le istituzioni locali mentre ci si chiede perché continuiamo a danzare.